“Texan, Dad,” she reminded him, cuddling closer. “I swear, my blood is way too thin for winter up here.”
Both of them stopped, turning to face the shout. Brian eyed the crowd, his face hard with suspicion, and Hannah nudged him with her elbow. “Calm down, Dad,” she murmured as a woman dressed in choir robes hurried towards them. “Not everybody’s out to get us.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“I know,” he replied with a crooked grin. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful.”
The choir member took Hannah’s free arm. “Come!” she urged with a light tug. “Come and sing with us!”
“It’s too cold!” she protested. “And it’s 1:30 in the morning! I’m heading for my nice warm bed.”
“Just a couple of songs,” the other woman urged. “We’ll be right here on the steps, and you only have to sing two songs.”
She wavered and knew it showed in her face as the pleading look in the woman’s eyes deepened. Her dad chuckled. “Go on, Stardust; you sat with me for services, now go sing for them.”
“All right,” Hannah capitulated. “But only two songs.”
People leaving Mass paused to listen as they sang, but her attention focused on her dad. He stood at the front of the crowd with his phone out. She hoped he was recording her, not keeping someone awake with a live performance. Granted, some of the family who should be sleeping were probably still up, but that was beside the point.
It had been a wonderful day.
Good Christian men rejoice, with heart and soul and voice!
Give ye heed to what we say.
Jesus Christ is born today!
After Marina received her Christmas gift, everyone split up to get children into beds and off to sleep, but Hannah had pulled Brian to the side. “Dad, would you and Tasha please take Benji?” She laughed as he blinked at her. “I want to go to midnight Mass if I can.”
He nodded, glancing to his wife. “Tasha?”
“I’ll take care of them,” Natasha agreed, shifting a sleepy Svetlana to her hip. She brushed a kiss over Hannah’s cheek. “Go take a quick nap, moya devushka. Benji can come with us and your father will take you to church.”
“See you in a couple of hours, sweetheart.” Brian hugged, snagging his grandson as he did so. He and Natasha left the room before she had any chance to argue.
“Let your dad take you,” Marina told her.
“I don’t want him going out of his way-.”
The words cut off as her aunt shook her head. “He wants to share this with you.”
Hannah nodded, accepting the mild rebuke. “I’d better go take that nap,” she admitted. “We probably won’t be home until somewhere between 1:30 and 2:00.” She glanced over at the gifts piled under and around the tree. “And funnily enough, I don’t see the kids letting us sleep in.”
Valya and Katenka, nestled in their father’s strong arms, made sleepy noises of agreement. “Up early,” the older twin yawned as her sister let her eyes fall closed. “Presents…”
Good Christian men rejoice, with heart and soul and voice.
Now ye need not fear the grave:.
Jesus Christ was born to save!
And that had been the final word on that.
So now she stood in the cold, cold wind, singing to the parishioners as they made their way out of the church towards cars, cabs, or subways. The surrounding crowd applauded as they finished their first song.
“Thank you, everyone!” the choir director smiled. “And now for our last song of the evening, I’d like to ask one of our newer members to sing for us. Hannah?”
Caught on the spot, she could only nod in agreement. “Cheater,” she hissed as she came to the front of the group. Not that the director seemed to care - the man just offered her a broad smile. She glanced around the crowd before locking eyes with Brian. Okay, maybe she hadn’t planned on doing a solo, but she’d sung for crowds before . . . though not in a long while.
Never mind that - right now she could settle some of her nerves by singing to her dad.
Oh, holy night,
The stars are brightly shining.
It is the night of the dear Savior's birth
Singing would never be her life’s ambition like it was Rachel’s, but Hannah couldn’t deny that she felt energized by the applause at the end of her solo. A light flush darkened her cheeks as she exchanged a last Christmas greeting with the choir members before rejoining Brian at the base of the stairs.
And not a single clap, not one word of admiration brought her even the tiniest fraction of the warmth she felt at her dad’s quiet word.
She fell into sleep, a quiet happiness filling her dreams. There would be no nightmares tonight.
Later that morning, Hannah’s shoulders shook with quiet laughter as she watched people munching on their sweets. She might have become accustomed to living in Stark Tower with all of its private amenities, but she wouldn’t let anyone help her when it came to Christmas presents. Doing odd jobs for Pepper meant she could afford more expensive gifts, but she preferred to make most of the presents herself. Any free time over the past few days had been spent in her kitchen - measuring, mixing, baking, and sealing up the finished products for this morning. Her gifts proved to be a great success from the looks of it. They wouldn’t last the day at this rate. And if people didn’t slow down, they would make themselves sick.
Not to mention ruining their appetites for Christmas dinner.
“Maybe I don’t even need to cook tonight,” Marina mused as she picked up a present from under the tree. Vocal disagreement rang out from every side and she shrugged. “With as many sweets as you’re all eating, you’ll be too full.”
“And those have to last you through the New Year,” Hannah added. “Except for what I promised Tony and Pepper, I’m taking a break.”
They grumbled and muttered, but people put away the rest of the baked goods to concentrate on their other presents. Marina nodded with approval as she walked over to sit beside Hannah. “You did well, bozya korovka.”
“Maybe too well,” she laughed.
Marina shared in the laughter before handing her the present. “This is from Will and I.”
“Thank you!” Hannah took the flat box from her aunt with a joyful smile. A small part of her mind reminded her not to overreact if they went a little overboard. That thought almost made her giggle. Will and Marina go overboard? Perish the thought. Yeah, right, she thought. She adored her uncle and aunt, but they spoiled everyone and seemed to take it almost as an affront that they hadn’t gotten to spoil her or Benji from day one.
With that idea deepening her smile, Hannah pulled the paper off the box and opened it. Despite giving herself the previous warning, she couldn’t keep her breath from escaping in a soft “Oh!”
“Is that a good ‘Oh’ or a bad one?” Will asked as he came to stand beside them.
“That’s an ‘Oh, it’s beautiful!’” Hannah blinked back tears as she pulled the necklace out of the box and held it up so the stones caught the light. They flashed a variety of colors, becoming a fiery rainbow in her hands. She looked up at him. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” He took the necklace from her hands and stepped behind her. She lifted up her hair so he could do the clasp. When he finished, he sat beside Marina. “It looks good.”
“You’re making me look bad,” Brian called out in a good-natured grumble.
“No, he’s not,” she disagreed. Her fingers moved to her ears, playing with her new earrings - golden chains that ended with little stars. “I think you’re all spoiling me.”
“Of course we are.”
Something tapped her on the top of her head. “Hey!” Ducking more out of instinct, she looked back over her shoulder to find Owen smirking at her. “What was that for?”
“This is for you.” He held out the envelope he’d used to get her attention. “Merry Christmas.”
“Thanks.” Hannah opened the envelope. Then she paused, blinking as she read the certificate inside. “Owen,” she began in a careful voice, “why do I need a certificate for a dog training school?”
His smirk had deepened by the time she glanced back up at him, but he shook his head. “I figured you’d want some lessons.”
Her eyes narrowed on him. “For what?”
Brian’s voice broke the staring contest and she turned to look at him. The turn was slow - her eyes shifting first, followed by her head and her body until she faced her dad . . . and Dean. Both men wore sheepish grins. She stared at them for a long moment. Then she slumped back in her seat. “Oh, you didn’t!”
“Yeah, we . . . kinda did,” Dean admitted, mouth pulling up into a crooked grin.
Before she could make any kind of reply, the elevator door opened and she heard a loud bark.
Ethan came out of the elevator with a half-grown puppy on a leash. Dark black fur covered most of its body but all four legs were red, matching marks around the muzzles and tiny spots almost like eyebrows. The werewolf wore a quiet smile. “He’s friendly.”
“And cute, I’ll give him that.”
“He’s a Beauceron, a guard dog breed originally from France,” Brian explained, leading the young dog towards her. “And he’s had some training.”
“The lessons are more for you.” Owen shrugged when she looked back at him. “So you can learn to work with him and he can learn to work with you.” A glint of mischief flickered in his gaze. “And the lessons are for two people by the way,” he added. “So someone else can be another of the dog’s ‘preferred’ people.”
“Subtle,” she muttered under her breath as she slipped off her chair to crouch. Opening her hand, she held it out. When Brian started to lead the dog to her, she glanced up and shook her head. “Let him come to me.”
Ethan’s mutter caused her lips to twitch, but she remained still. It took him a minute or so to take her measure. Then he began moving towards her, circling as much as the leash would allow. She’d prefer to do this with him off the leash . . . but with all the kids around, that could be a bad idea. He already seemed a little nervous - even though most of the crowd stayed back, giving them plenty of room.
“Good boy,” she encouraged as he walked closer. “There’s a sweet boy.”
At her soft-spoken words, he picked up the pace. He sniffed at her hand for a moment and then nudged it with his nose.
“Hello, there.” Hannah put her hand on his shoulder and began to pet him. The dog’s tail wagged, slow but steady as he leaned into her touch. “Aren’t you a sweetheart?” He wiggled a bit, pressing further into her as she paused. “And what’s your name, hmm?”
“They haven’t trained him to any particular name,” Dean replied. “So they could leave it open for whoever adopted him.”
Brian nodded. “It’ll take him a little longer to learn it, but you get to name him.”
“One of you is coming to the lessons,” she informed them. Her hand never stopped petting her new dog. “Just because he’s cute - and obviously staying - doesn’t mean you two get out of being in trouble for going around me on this.”
Dean went for an innocent smile that fooled no one while Brian shrugged. “He’ll be good protection.”
“Probably,” she nodded. Then she arched her eyebrows at them. “Not to mention needing lots of exercise and learning to do his business somewhere other than the Tower.” Both men looked taken aback, but she repressed the desire to laugh at them. “I don’t have a huge field I can turn him loose in,” she continued. “And no matter how adorable he may be, I didn’t bring home the puppy. So someone is going to be helping me with all of that. The city’s got laws about that, you know.”
“Well,” Brian hedged, “maybe-.”
“One of you two,” she repeated. “You two went around me and made the decision - and I’m not going to argue about it, but!” She pointed a finger to stop any arguments. “ This is a responsibility and you gave it to me, so you get to share.”
“I love this girl,” Marina announced, causing Will to chuckle.
Snickers, repressed laughter, and outright chortling broke out around the room as the two men gave her an exasperated look before eyeing each other. Hannah let them hash it out as she continued to pet and praise the dog. Names went through her mind, considered, then discarded one by one. Then a perfect name occurred to her and she couldn’t hold back the smile. “Oh, I’ve got it!”
Dean lifted his eyebrows. “Got what?”
“What are you going to name him?” Natasha asked.
“Guillaume.” Hannah tilted her head. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Marina’s hand come up to cover her mouth, hiding a grin, even as Will pinched the bridge of his nose. “It means ‘resolute protector’.”
Her cousin started to snicker, drawing all eyes to him. The snickering dissolved into laughter when she turned to him wearing her own smirk. Everyone watched him, their gazes flickering between the two of them as he fought to regain control. It took a few minutes, but he managed at last. “You are definitely Brian’s daughter,” Sam informed her.
“Yes, I know.”
“That’s always good to hear,” Brian cut in, “but . . . why exactly this time?”
“Because ‘Guillaume’ is the French version of William.”
“You’re having too much fun with this.” Will turned an exasperated look on his son before reaching over to shove his now chortling brother. “Shut up.”
“I love it!”
“Now see what you’ve done, lebedyashka?”
“What?” Hannah scratched behind one of Guillaume’s ears. Her free hand came up to play with her new necklace. “It’s a perfect name!”
Marina smiled. “The best name.”
"You would know, Marishka, you gave it to me."
"That just means I have good taste, Misha.” She smiled down at the dog. “It's a lovely name, Hannah. Do you plan to shorten it or anything?"
“No,” she replied after a moment's consideration. “None of them I know sound quite right to me.” She lifted a shoulder in a half shrug. “And it’s not like it’s a long name in the French form, so Guillaume it is.”
"I'm never going to hear the end of this," Will sighed. He gave his chortling brothers an exasperated glare, but the expression turned fond as he turned it on Hannah. "I'm not sure whether to be flattered or not."
"She chose to name her protector after you," his partner reminded him. "It's an excellent choice."
"All right, all right." He gave them both a slight smile. "Then I'm flattered."
"I'm glad," Hannah told him, "because I agree with Marina." She rose, her hand holding the leash as she turned to him. Brushing a kiss over his cheek, she murmured, "Te quiero, Tío."
His own voice stayed low, too low to be heard by anyone other than her, Marina, and Owen. "Ya tozhe tebya lyublyu, lebedyashka."